Neti pots, those long-necked containers for rinsing gunk out of nasal passages, have a reputation problem. Although they mostly stay out of the news, every once in a while, they make headlines for the worst possible reason: because they helped someone contract a water-borne illness like brain-eating amoebas.
Despite this horrifying detail, neti pots are usually safe—when you use them properly and treat the water you put in them. Here’s how to clear your nose without risking your health.
Why do people use neti pots anyway?
For those who suffer from allergies, colds, sinus infections, or even frequent stuffy noses, a neti pot can provide real relief. In addition to thinning out your snot, which makes it easier to remove from your nasal passages, these little watering cans help rinse out dust, pollen, and other irritants.
In another high point, neti pots rarely cause infection. Although brain-eating amoebas like Naegleria fowleri and Balamuthia mandrillaris sound terrifying, they very rarely affect humans: In the United States, in the past decade, there have been zero to eight cases of N. fowleri infection per year, and between 2008 and 2017, only three patients caught that amoeba from putting tap water their neti pots.
If these stats don’t alleviate your worries, then you can live a perfectly healthy life without ever touching spout to nostril. Particularly if you’re generally clear-nosed, you won’t suffer any adverse health effects from simply avoiding neti pots altogether. However, if you’re feeling stuffed up—you keep sneezing, are constantly blowing your nose, and have to breathe through your mouth to survive—it shouldn’t hurt you to give the devices a try.
Prepare your water
The real issue with neti pot safety boils down to the liquid you put it in. Do not fill it with untreated tap water. Depending on where you live, the H2O in your sink may contain tiny organisms like the aforementioned Naegleria fowleri and Balamuthia mandrillaris. When you gulp down aglas s, the acid in your stomach will kill these amoebas. But when you pour the liquid through your nasal passages, they can take hold and cause infection.
If you want to use tap water, there’s an easy way to treat it: According to the FDA, you should boil it for three to five minutes, let it cool to room temperature, and then use it immediately or store it in a clean container for up to 24 hours.
You can also pass your water through a heavy-duty filter. This is not the type you’d find in your Brita, by the way. We’re talking something designed to net microorganisms, so it needs to have a label that says “NSF 53” or “NSF 58,” or describes the “absolute pore size” as one micron or smaller, according to the CDC.
You’ll also be in good shape if you eschew the tap and instead purchase “distilled” or “sterile” water. These liquids have been treated before coming to you, which means they shouldn’t contain those dangerous microorganisms.
Once you have a safe source of H2O, turn it into saline. Most neti pots will come with salt and instructions on how much to mix into your water.
However, if you run of pre-provided materials, WebMD recommends that you mix eight ounces of your treated water with three teaspoons of salt (a non-iodide and preservative-free form) and one teaspoon of baking soda. If this feels too strong when you try it, you can always increase the amount of water to dilute your solution.
Rinse and repeat
To actually use your neti pot, first stand over a sink. Then tilt your head sideways at about a 45-degree angle, while keeping your forehead and chin at the same level. This should prevent the liquid from trickling into your mouth, but if it does anyway, you can always spit it out.
Put the spout to whichever nostril is higher, and slowly pour the liquid so it goes in the higher nostril and out the lower one. Breathe through your mouth throughout this process.
When you start feeling clearer, or simply get tired of pouring the liquid, you can stop. Then blow your nose to clear out any extra saline, refill the pot (if necessary), and do the same thing with your other nostril.
If you’re fairly stopped-up, you might want to use a neti pot every day during your illness. If you plan to make it a long-term treatment, using it three times a week should be plenty.
One of the most important parts of using a neti pot is keeping it clean. Every time you clear your nose, you should finish your ablutions by washing the pot and letting it dry completely. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for this process—the best practice may vary depending on the pot’s material.
In fact, follow those instructions throughout this process. Because you’ll find a variety of shapes and materials for neti pots, our recommendations won’t necessarily cover every type. Stick to the manufacturer’s rules, treat your water (or avoid the tap altogether), and you should be fine.